Irregular English spelling

In a speech at the centenary dinner of the Spelling Society, a professor of phonetics from University College London claimed that people should be allowed greater to spell English logically. He believes that the ways of spelling English found in text messages and online chat are a good model to follow. He also said that the apostrophe “causes unnecessary linguistics barriers” and could simply be omitted, or we could use a space instead.

There are some details of the professor’s proposals on the BBC site.

Many have proposed reforming English spelling, few have made any difference.

Do you think the benefits of reforming English spelling would outweigh the drawbacks?

18 thoughts on “Irregular English spelling

  1. I like some of his ideas. For example, ‘Abolish the apostrophe’. But I don’t think it is a good idea to use ‘there’ to represent ‘Their, there and they’re’ because this confuses learners.

    Anyway, I don’t think there will be much changes in English spelling because many people will oppose reforms because they like to use traditional spellings.

  2. Apart from the usual arguments trotted out (which I’ll spare you) there is the idea that pretty much every English speaking country likes to separate the sheep from the goats linguistically.

    This means, among other things, that accent becomes an important marker both in expressing self-identity and classifying others and the very real hurdles that most children face in learning English spelling are an entry barrier to upward mobility and meant to work that way.

    In other words, easier spelling* would remove one of the ways English speaking countries track the potential winners and the sure losers. And it’s not only that, but most societies don’t want to face that particular reality and instead construct elaborate coping mechanisms to avoid perceiving it.

    *Nothing major either, my guesstimate is that changing no more than 10 % of spellings (systematically) would eliminate about 90% of learning difficulties and older texts would still be easily readable for those so inclined.

  3. I think the time would be better spent improving the way that English (in its current state) is taught. Grammar teaching in schools is awful and children are growing up with a misunderstanding of the way our language works. The apostrophe, and the differences between there, their, they’re are very important semantically and their obsolescence would make written English far more ambiguous.

    A gradual spelling reform would not work, especially one of this scale which would affect most words in the language (and even possibly the way our alphabet and sound system work), and would result in far too many irregularities during the change.

    An immediate change, on the other hand, would mean what everybody would have to relearn spelling rules, which in my opinion would be more learning intensive than just learning to use our current spelling system in the first place.

  4. Do you think this changes in the English spelling would make the language more “graphically” close to it’s Germanic cousins?

  5. I believe that some of the proposals put forward do pose a relevant issue. Some rules which govern the spelling of English must be abolished. I am young; I am only in Grade 10, but I am debating with myself as to whether we should abolish a lot of the old rules which have confused and made English one of the more difficult languages to study.
    I see it completely wrong to use ‘there’ to represent ‘their’, ‘they’re’ and ‘there’ because these three words are all grammatical; It would not make sense to use there. If one changes the spelling of a word, it may just change the meaning. If one was also to say “There taking there bags over there”, it would be hard to tell which is the contracted pronoun, which is the possessive pronoun and which is the adverb.

    There definitely has to be a spelling reform for English. Every other language has gone through one (well, quite a few). Also, English is widely known as the international language. What is the point of using an international language where there are two main divisions of accepted spelling and where even the native English-speaking children have such a hard time spelling and reading during school? It seems preposterous that we all have had to learn the spelling rules and how to pronounce completely irregular combinations of letters.

    I think that basing a new style of written English on a variety we already use for IM or text messages is a bad idea because there are so many different variations we use on just one word.

  6. I´d ignore the reforms if introduced: spelling is part of the texture and identity of the language.

    I do sympathise with learners of english, as my spelling is much more Spanish based than English based at the moment and I often find myself spelling english words according to Spanish rules. But that´s a phase and when I start using English more it will even out. And what´s more I always had to work at spelling. But I would still oppose changes as they cut out richness in the language and make it harder to guess meaning

  7. Some suggestions of what I read at the BBC site (professor’s proposals) are like spelling rules in Dutch. F.i.: a double consonant to mark that the preceding vowel is short. But what I saw is by far not enough: In danger (danjer) -a- is [e], while in anger (angger) as well as hanger it is like lait in French.
    Now a days English is written so unphonetically that I think it ‘ll be hard to find enough spelling rules to cover this. Besides the so called “Standard English” or “The Queens English” there are so many variations. The only consequent possibility to write it in a way to make clear how to pronounce it, is to use a phonetic alphabet.
    In Dutch every ten years we are confronted with new spelling rules, but to my opinion it did not contribute to make writing in Dutch more phonetic.

  8. Like, James P, I would also ignore the reforms if they happened.
    Our spoken and written language have evolved over centuries of history and culture. If the reforms happened, it would do away with the beautiful written language that we have.

  9. I love the English language and all its stages – Old English, Middle English and all the other Englishes. However, I do like the idea of spelling reform. I have no problem with the idea that ‘their’, there’ and ‘they’re’ would be spelt the same. There wouldn’t be any confusion. Speakers and listeners can tell the difference; why wouldn’t readers? ‘Bow’ and ‘bow’, ‘row’ and ‘row’ don’t seem to cause much confusion, though they’re spelt the same and pronounced differently.

    Swedish had a spelling reform about 50 years back, and German had a spelling reform fairly recently. So it’s not like it can’t be done with English. The biggest problem with spelling reform is that written English is so much further from its spoken variant than the Swedish and German. Another problem that has been mentioned is the cost of reprinting everything, so I like the idea of a small tinkering which wouldn’t obliterate the old system but would make it good sight easier to teach and learn.

    I don’t know why spelling a word differently would compromise the richness of English. It’s still the same word. Is it the historical/etymological resonance of a spelling?

    To Helena, I think spelling reform would further distance English from its cousins. ‘Right’ and ‘knife’ are a lot closer to ‘recht’ and ‘kniv’ than ‘rait’ and ‘naif’. However that is not in itself reason to not reform English spelling.

  10. I do not believe that spelling reform would make any sense. I am not a native English speaker, but one who loves the language, idiosyncracies and all. Sure, is a challenge to learn, but the very simple grammar more than compensates for the weird, wonderful and often irrational spelling.
    The problem is education. Children simply are not taught properly anymore. I believe it is particularly bad here in Canada; we speak (more or less) like the Americans, yet our spelling is (more or less) British – confusing. In addition, in the major cities, there is a very large immigrant population who speak mostly their original language, as a result, their children are exposed to English only during school hours, this would result in a very limited vocabulary; grammar and spelling are not high priorities.
    Spelling reform, or rather, simplification, would do little or nothing to improve the general level of English, just make it easier for people who don’t care in the first place.

  11. There are books which purport to teach Southern English and Minnesota English. There are jokes galore making fun of southern accents, Maine accents, Minnesota accents, backwoods accents, etc. A lot of them turn on spelling or pronunciation that makes it clear how far apart the pronunciation is between different regions of the United States. I understand it is the same with the different British accents and with Australian and Canadian. You’ll know what I’m talking aboot if you think of spelling Canadian the way it sounds, for example. Where I come from – Northern Michigan – the response would be, “Watcha wanna do that fer?”

    It is joked that the U.S. and Great Britain are divided by a common tongue. To take up phonetic spelling without a standardization that isn’t going to happen would be to turn a universal language into a plethora of pidgins and would, rather than simplifying things, throw up new barriers between “Anglophones” the world over who rely on a shared or relatively shared if impossible spelling system so that we can all get used to each other’s “mispronunciations” in finding shared meaning.

    If you look at texts over the centuries, you can see English spelling changing, though the grammar changes faster. But it is done by popular acclaim: things only change when enough people deviate that the grammarians and dictionary makers give up on securing the old usages. This is as it should be: holding the language together but giving the people the ultimate vote when old usages become too unwieldy.

  12. Two excellent points have been made already —

    1) The lack of an authority under whose imprimatur a spelling reform could be published (and enforced). There is nothing like the Académie française for English. Not only that, but English is not centralized in the way most other languages undergoing spelling reform tend to be. It’s one thing to reform the spelling of Swedish, say; quite another to reform English. There are already accepted spelling differences between British and American (not to mention other) varieties of English; how do you get all of these far-flung outposts of the language to agree?

    2) The problem of how the language is taught. This is a major factor, I think. And it’s not just about spelling, but grammar. Until we have a better, more systematic pedagogical approach (one that emphasizes historical principles, including sound change and etymology), new English speakers have to accept everything as arbitrary. Right now, learning English comes with a lot of rote memorization of irregular forms and exceptions. Under a new teaching rubric, most of those irregular forms would become much more intuitive and comprehensible.

    All that being said, I don’t object to the use of limited simplified spelling, so long as it doesn’t obscure meaning. It doesn’t outrage me as a “defender of English” to see people using forms like “thru” or “nite”. On the other hand, those who argue that just because it’s relatively easy to understand something you hear, so it ought to be easy to understand something you read, are missing an important point: that the brain processes aural comprehension *very differently* from reading comprehension. The two are far from equivalent. As a result, using “there” for “there”, “their”, and “they’re” is a bad idea. Just as using “ate” for “eight” or removing internal apostrophes could be much more confusing in writing than in speaking. (Now, the terminal, possessive apostrophe — I think we could lose that.)

  13. Written language is almost always more conservative than what is spoken. The normal “drift” that occurs in the, for lack of better word, evolution of a spoken language – changes in vocabulary, meaning, pronunciation, etc. – means that you’d have to revisit constantly changes to the written form if you were intent on reform. Over a long enough period this could lead to substantial difficulty reading earlier texts. The brain processes writing and speaking in quite different ways (as we all know it is perfectly possible to be a fluent speaker but be quite illiterate), so I don’t think that reforming spelling really makes that much sense. It simply requires a good education, as others have mentioned.

    One of the examples I know best (and admittedly it’s an extreme version) is what happened to Turkish. When Turkish was written in the Perso-Arabic script, few could read it, but not just because it didn’t “suit” the language’s vowel-rich form as critics sometimes claimed. It had much more to do with access to education, as was the case in much of the world. If taught widely and effectively, learning the Perso-Arabic script would not have been so difficult in the Ottoman context (for example). As with English, a Turkish speaker/reader could simply learn to identify a written word by appearance, not just phonetically. Interestingly, the “ambiguity” of using this script allowed for a greater readability among Turkic literatures. With the move to Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, in a profusion of forms, barriers between literary Turkic forms increased.

    Sorry – this was much longer than I had intended!

  14. If such a reform happens in one country, say, the US, then Americans won’t understand written British and Australian English, and that’s a problem.

    The only practical thing to do is to very gradually make widespread norms official. So “giv” is a bit too forward, but Americanisms are a good idea.

    Btw, many Americanisms originated from Webster’s Dictionary. Webster just decided to modify the spelling and did so in his dictionary, and it caught on!

  15. If you’re saying there is no authority to enforce English spelling reform you’re right, and you’re wrong: There are dozens of authorities in the form of national and provincial governments and school boards. It would introduce a number of other problems, but if a single English-speaking country proceeded to reform its English spelling system, others might follow depending on their relationship. As Lev pointed out, it’s happened in the past.

    Aiming for 100% phonetic spelling would be a huge mistake, but are there any English-speaking countries where “enough” is pronounced “e-noog” or “e-no-guh” instead of something more like “e-nuf”? I don’t think so, and there must be other universal examples (does anyone pronounce the end vowel in “complete”? it could be moved and give us “compleet”) so there must be room for improvement.

    On the flip side, pronunciation reform is something I could get behind. Idiot children spell “your”/”you’re” and “there”/”they’re” the same because they pronounce them the same.

  16. I think a spelling reform would be great, if ever we managed to get off our butts and have one. Admittedly there are a lot of tough practical problems to be dealt with for such a thing to succeed, but I think it would be worthwhile.

  17. I really like the way English spelling looks, but mainly as a sort of art, and not as an actual representation of the spoken language. I think reform would be a good idea, but only if it’s done right.

    I’m personally working on a reform that totally throws out all convention… though a few of the shortest words are the same, just by chance. Sort of Roman vowels with Slavic consonants. It’s a bit heavy on diacritics, but the vowels have to cover both American and British accents—and the differences between them—in a single spelling. And I’m using Eth and Thorn, with their (approximate) Icelandic values; also Q for J, as J=Y. There’s no way to distinguish homophones, because really, that’s just silly; but (as of this post) I’m still using apostrophes in contractions. Those who don’t speak GA or RP, or something close, would probably hate me though. :\

    Maybe I’ll get picture up somewhere with IPA values and link to it here….

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